Rich and Matt: A tale of two fourth-liners


Fellow TLN writer Ryan Fancey brought up today that the signing of Matt Martin back in July was a bit of a questionable one. That’s not something that you haven’t heard before; we showed significant skepticism in the moment of and those that immediately followed in early July.

But Ryan’s point was that, in having a pricey and longer-term deal, Martin could now stand in the way of a rookie who impresses in camp, because there’s no way that the man who just signed a $10-million dollar contract gets cut before his first game, right?

My response: This could’ve all been avoided if they gave Rich Clune an NHL contract instead. It was a response that got scoffed at heavily by the social media masses, but I don’t think it’s an insane statement. For the sake of discussing roster management rather than pumping or dumping on either player, let’s do a comparison to see if there’s much of a discernable difference between what they bring. 

The Optics

I don’t like when someone drops a screencap of a chart in front of you, says “this guy is better at hockey”, drops the mic and walks away, confident that they’ve won an argument by skirting the 140 character limit. So I’m not going to sit here, vomit out a bunch of numbers, and say “I rest my case”. Certain play styles and player usages will cater to certain metrics, which can lead to unfair comparisons.

But using what we know away from the data, we’re not talking about drastically different players. Both are in their Late 20s, both are known for being gritty forecheckers on fourth lines, and both can drop the gloves. Martin is two years younger at 27 years old, though assuming that the Clune alternative gets him a 1-year deal (a safe assumption given that he’s on a 1-year AHL contract right now), the commitment to Martin brings him to 31 while a Clune commitment would bring him to 30.

Both players are Left Wingers with left-handed shots, neither have really been placed with scorers, and both come from a history of being relatively decent junior players with edgy sides who had to grind to make it. Curiously, Martin was essentially Clune’s usurper on the Sarnia Sting, joining the year after Clune headed to Barrie.

The biggest difference between the two Good Ontario Boys (TM) off-paper is that Martin is a much physical specimen. Clune is a little stockier at 5’11, 207lbs, but Martin towers over him by a few inches at 6’3, 220lbs. This gives him a little bit of extra reach and screening ability in front of the net, which is likely where the Leafs would intend to have their displacement forechecker head after getting the puck and initiating offensive zone possession.

The Numbers

Now, many will assume that the results that Martin delivers are going to be significantly better, given that he’s a player who just received a $10 million multi-year contract from a mostly-smart team, while Clune has struggled to stay in the NHL over the past few years and is technically an unrestricted free agent as far as the league goes. Here’s the interesting thing, though: the results aren’t really in Martin’s favour. I took a look at the two players from a few different angles over 1, 3, and 5-year samples, and this was the end result:

Production: This year is perhaps a bit small of a sample for Clune, as he played just 19 times. That’s most reflected in point production, particularly when your minutes are low, and it shows with him coming up with 1.63 points per 60 despite no goals. This eclipses Martin, but might also just be a bit of dumb luck with assists; another 10 or 15 minutes without a point and it looks drastically different. Looking at them over three and five years, though, you see that the two are washes (1.06 vs. 1.09 Martin in a three-year, 1.09 vs 1.00 Clune in a five-year). It’s enough to assume that they have about the same point-production impact.

What is worth noting is that Martin does try to shoot the puck more often than Clune does. Historically, Martin has consistently attempted about 11 shots per 60 minutes, while Clune lands around 6.5. This could be due to Martin being often being on a line where there isn’t a set shooter (Cizikas and Clutterbuck aren’t necessarily snipers), or it could mean that he is more individually involved in the offensive side of the play.

Possession: This is an interesting one. The most hyped up part of Martin’s game is his “shot suppression” ability; opponents take fewer shots on goal with him on the ice than most others in the league. Wondering why exactly that was led me to this comparison in the first place. My thought was that traditional fourth lines usually end up finding themselves slowing the game down to lower-event hockey, especially if they get deployed against other traditional fourth lines. There’s a lot of puck-dumping, body checking, board pinning, and general time-killing to give the line that changes on a breather and possibly an opening if all goes to plan. So, with that in mind, I looked at who else may have been an elite shot suppressor… and Rich Clune was right there.

In fact, he’s even better. Clune averaged nine fewer attempts against per 60 last year, seven fewer over a 3-year sample, and five fewer in a 5-year. He doesn’t generate as much offence, but his gains defensively mean that he’s had higher short and long-term possession numbers, both in terms of straight up Corsi-For percentage and in team-relative terms. Clune has, historically, been pretty neutral in his impact, while Martin had an almost neutral 2015/6 but has historically been a -3% relative player.

Grit: Hey, if we’re going to talk about grinders bringing that extra edge, we may as well quantify it! In this case, I looked at the two players’ rate frequency of throwing hits, blocking shots, and creating penalty differential.

Martin is known as one of the best in the business at throwing his own body at people, and it shows. He’s consistently averaged about 26-27 hits per 60 minutes over the past 5 years, while Clune was pretty aggressive at 23.7 this year but typically lands around 20. It is worth considering that Martin does have the trigger-happy Islanders stat counters helping him out a bit and that playing on a lower-possession team also gives him more shifts without the puck to go chase it. 

Both are more frequent than most, but Martin is most frequent. The same goes for Blocked Shots; he gets in the way about twice as often, though Clune was more engaged in this regard last year. Both of these statistics are touchy subjects; the act of a hit creates a dispossession opportunity, and a blocked shot is certainly better than a goal against, but you ideally never want to be in those situations where either is necessary.

Penalty drawing is an interesting one, as it the two seem to be trending in opposite directions. Clune was horribly undisciplined early in his career, but is nearly a penalty-neutral player over the past three years (28 drawn, 30 taken). Martin, on the other hand, started off his career with discipline, if not drawing capabilities, but now is overwhelmingly the aggressor. This year, he drew 14 penalties and took 25; which isn’t great when you consider the power that a powerplay truly gives you.

Context: Just for the hell of it, I decided to see if there were any conclusions to be had out of looking at their zone deployment and quality of teammates/competition. Both are usually started away from the offensive zone, and both are more likely to finish in the opposite end, gaining about an extra 10% in their finishes than their starts last year, both about 8% in a three year sample, though Clune started his proficiencies at an earlier stage in his career as well. As for player quality, the numbers using Corsica’s time-on-ice based models are so close in all three that it’s not really worth going into specifics; we’re talking margin of error territory across all samples.

The Situation

What that all brings us to is the fact that Rich Clune, from a possession, production, grit, and contextual standpoint, is about as close to Martin’s equal as you can get. Visually, he lacks a bit in size, but plays a very similar game.

That’s not to say that Clune is a superstar, or that Martin is garbage. Neither are overly inspiring talents but both appear to be quite serviceable NHLers in a specific bottom six role. They’re modern grinders who can help instigate a forecheck and won’t treat the puck like its a grenade if it’s ever passed to them, even if they won’t necessarily go full Ovechkin with it either. They’ll drop the mitts without being staged mitt-droppers.

That’s what makes the present situation so weird, though. Clune was a known quantity inside the organization, having played here this year, and has historically produced similar results in a similar role. Martin was an outsider, who has a massively inflated reputation thanks to Don Cherry but isn’t exactly on anybody’s Top 50 list. 

Yet here are the Leafs, who have turned into a modern beacon of hope from a skill development and financial management perspective, heading into October with questions from their viewers about whether all of this made sense. It’s hard to blame them, too; Martin looks poised to play on the fourth line, and as more and more of the early-20s prospects look to be ready for an NHL graduation, there’s speculation that he might be in the way of some roster spots.

That was something that skeptics of the signing feared could happen in years 3 and 4, and they’re already potentially there before Day 1. On the other hand, if they had signed the known quantity within the organization, it’d be much easier to throw him on waivers if someone beat him out for a spot without anyone batting an eyelash, or worrying about whether $2.5 million a 13th forward will hurt the team in 2019 or 2020.

I will concede that maybe there’s something the Leafs know about Martin that we don’t. Maybe there’s an actual need for his extra few inches. Maybe they’ve noticed a flaw in his game that can be fixed by one of their skills coaches. Maybe they feel him to be better suited to their X’s and O’s. It’s hard to say for sure; I am publishing this, after all, the morning after he put up the best Corsi numbers on the roster in a win over the Habs. 

Conversely, maybe they feel that Clune has more value in the league below, as a coach and mentor to the Marlies rather than up with the Leafs. While this is a one-or-the-other scenario, you can expand the picture to make the answer “both”, and maybe that’s part of the thought process.

But if Martin does immediately get in the way, it’s going to be interesting to see how they respond to that. Do they have the guts to start trying to move on right away? Do they force him into the lineup anyway as a matter of respect? 

It’s an odd situation, and perhaps one that’s going to take a few weeks of fast forwarding to have a true conclusion. In the meantime, though, it’s really odd that the guy who got the 4-year deal appears to be so identical to the guy that’s still waiting to even get league minimum again.

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  • Jaker

    A few stats being similar does not make them “identical”. Does experience count for nothing? Rich Clune NHL Games played: 139. (+4 playoff games) Matt Martin NHL Games played: 438. (+24 playoff games). One guy bounced between AHL/NHL with 3 different clubs. The other made they NHL and stayed there… in other words, Martin is 2 years younger and has triple the NHL experience. Not saying he isn’t a bit overpaid, but he is probably the better “mentor” and player.

  • LukeDaDrifter

    The biggest argument for having Clune fill that 4th line left-wing position is, the Leafs could of saved 1.5 million in salary. Jaker’s point below is 100% valid. There is also the upcoming expansion draft. Every team will have to expose and lose a decent NHL caliber player, no exceptions. Realistically, I don’t believe Vegas will be choosing older players in the twilight of their careers.

      • LukeDaDrifter

        Bozak scored two more goals than Martin last year. He will also be 31 years old by the time of the expansion draft. He makes 4 million a year. Martin’s contract is front loaded so in real salary he will make about 1.5 in his last couple of years. Though his cap hit remains at 2.5.

        • Kanuunankuula

          Also 23 games less played and 35 pts vs 19. But okay. Martin’s cap hit is still going to be too much next summer, and he just had a career year. Bozak’s game is going to age waaaaaaay better than Martin’s. I’m no Bozak fan but to say Martin > Bozak is just nonsensical.

  • Harte of a Lion

    One of them (Clune) needs to protect the kids on the Marlies. He is more than capable of playing a regular shift, chipping in offensively and punching some moron out for a dirty play on one of our prized prospects.